Affect and emotion in extremist discourse

Affect and emotion in extremist discourse

Affect and emotion seem to be key driving forces in extremist discourse and terror activities. In her PhD research, Kristine Endsjø is looking at the role of emotion in persuasion and the affective processes that drive extremist discourse.

Recent studies on terrorism propaganda have looked at the ideological content and how it appeals to people primarily on a logical, cognitive level. Other studies have looked at the dissemination structure on social media platforms. Although several researchers point out that there is an important emotional appeal in propaganda material, few have examined this aspect in detail.

This project seeks to fill out this gap by looking into extremist communication, and by applying a combination of the psychological understanding of emotion, as well as understanding affective processes from a theoretical perspective.

The focus of the study is on online communication but may also extend to offline discourse. The study looks at discursive processes in far-right and Islamist networks.

Affect and emotion

Affect can be understood in several ways. In psychology, affect is sometimes understood purely in terms of physiological responses and at times encompasses emotion as well. Emotion includes the physical responses, thoughts and feelings, as well as the expression of these.

In other disciplines, affect is understood in terms of process. Here, affect is seen as relational, and as something that circulates between people, events or units. For instance, it looks at how people are affected by events and how they affect each other.

My project aims at uniting these perspectives, as both emotion and affect are personal and social phenomena. The project looks at how propaganda content may provoke certain emotions in the audience, and how members of extremist networks engage in affective processes in their conversations.

The project is split into two parts:

  1. Emotion in discourse
  2. Affect in the discursive process

1. Emotion in discourse

The first part of the project will look at the emotional appeal in extremist discourses. In the case of the Islamic State group (IS), for instance, several researchers have pointed out that there is an emotional appeal without examining this aspect in much detail.

Studies have looked at metaphors, symbolism and recurring themes in the official publications, such as brotherly love or deep social bonds. Others have pointed out that the different themes and reliance on violent or softer aspects depends on the audience they want to reach.

However, regardless of the specific content of the material, different emphases for different audiences or situations may also reflect an ability to manipulate emotions.  It is now increasingly accepted that what is traditionally referred to as “reason” and emotion are deeply connected.

Emotion is, therefore, an important part of our perception and thinking. Yet, even though emotions relate to the content, such as social bonds, bravery or adventure, they may be less specific and loosely connected to ideological content.

As such, this part of the project aims to look at how extremist discourses may resonate with underlying emotions in the audiences.

2. Affect in discursive processes

In addition to looking at emotional content in discourse, the project also seeks to make preliminary suggestions as to how affective processes are sparked by material and why people engage in extremist conversations.

The premise for this line of enquiry is that people are not just passively receiving propaganda material. Instead, they are active consumers who have motivations for seeking out these environments in the first place. They then may radicalise further as they are increasingly exposed to, or seek out, environments with similar views.

people are not just passively receiving propaganda material. Instead, they are active consumers who have motivations for seeking out these environments in the first place.

What makes it hard to study these processes is that people differ in how much they participate in social media communities. Participation may range from consuming content, to casually participating, to actively engaging with content and discourse. Therefore, it is useful to apply theory to explore how these processes may happen.

Rather than taking a top-down approach to understanding propaganda material, this project looks at how affective meaning is co-constructed by the people who participate in the discourse.

Images of social media interaction

As seen with IS, an effective media strategy depends on a dispersed network of disseminators, who spread the content and who can engage directly with other supporters.

I argue that these processes are affective processes, in which people engage with material, are affected and affect others, as they participate in discursive practices in these networks.

Why are affect and emotion important in studies on extremism?

Affect and emotion seem to be key components in understanding the powerful appeal of propaganda material and extremist conversation, as they influence how we perceive content and can be powerful motivating forces.

Adding these dimensions to the study of extremist communication will help explain how the emotional side of ideology appeals to people in different contexts, or transnationally and could be useful in future efforts to understand and disrupt the reach of these messages.


Kristine Endsjø is a CREST-funded PhD student in the Ideas, Beliefs and Values in Social Context programme. She is based at Lancaster University.

This blog is one of a number written by CREST’s Early Career Researchers whose work contributes to CREST’s mission of understanding, countering and mitigating security threats. You can see all the blogs in the ECR series: https://crestresearch.ac.uk/tag/ecr-series/

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